Conversation Circles in speech bubble on left, six diverse faces on right
By Aja Antoine, Chaplaincy Innovation Lab Research Associate

This fall, the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab will release an online reader focused on the work of African American chaplains. The online reader is envisioned as a reference for chaplains, students, and educators interested in examining the interplay between race and the history of chaplaincy in the United States. Its resources will range from select profiles of Black chaplains who are historical figures and contemporary leaders in spiritual care alongside images and reflections on their work, to newspaper articles from the past century to the present illustrating the accomplishments of chaplains, as well as a listing of current books about spiritual care and African American communities in the present day. The online reader will be a webpage available on the Lab’s website.

We will also release a paper titled, “Race, Ethnicity, and the Work of African American Chaplains and Spiritual Care in the United States, 1900-2021” based on 21 interviews with African American chaplains and more than 100 articles from historical newspapers about Black chaplains in the military, education, government. This working paper begins to collect stories of African Americans who have done the work of chaplaincy work by naming them, charting their histories, and outlining the challenges and opportunities facing those in the field today.

Themes from the online reader and working paper will inform the conversations in an upcoming virtual lecture series, which will begin with a kick-off webinar which will be followed by several online lectures hosted by the Lab in the fall 2021 and spring 2022. The free online series will focus on the expertise, compassion, and care African American chaplains bring to their work; their experiences as people of color in this work; and opportunities for everyone to unite in action around disparities in access to spiritual care. We will be releasing information on the schedule and speakers on the Lab’s social media (LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter). Follow the Lab to receive live updates.

Earlier this year we wrapped up an integral part of this project: Conversation Circles for Chaplains of Color. The free conversation circles created space for connection, reflection, collaboration, and perspective taking, along with sharing and centralizing resources.

Between January and June 2021, 161 participated in one or more of our 16 conversation circles. Attendees came from work in a variety of settings, including education, military, corrections, and community settings and come from diverse racial and ethnic, backgrounds as well as spiritual or religious orientations including Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. The majority of the chaplains who participated were Protestant (63%) African Americans (73%) working in healthcare (65%). Surveys indicate that the majority of participants appreciated the “warm,” “empathetic” listening and openness of the co-leaders, as well as the group structure. The most common comment from the feedback survey was, “You all made it easy to ‘open up.’”

Participants felt they were able to express their feelings without fear of judgement. One respondent synthesized what many felt was most helpful, "The freedom to speak freely with respect for others but not being guarded in my speech for concern of dismissal or retaliation. This circle is a safe place for conversation and personal and professional growth."

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Aja Antoine is a research associate at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. She is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She spends her free time reading novels and would love to write one someday.

Sophia Koolpe is a student research assistant at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. She is a rising sophomore at Brandeis University and is excited to see where her next three years lead her.

Advisory Committee for Spiritual Care Providers Network

Rev. Marilyn J. D. Barnes MS, MA, MPH, BCC, is a vice president of mission and spiritual care in the Advocate Aurora Healthcare System.

Rev. Kirstin C. Boswell Ford, MDiv, is the university chaplain and dean of Multifaith Engagement at Elon University.

Wendy Cadge, PhD, is the Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences and professor of sociology at Brandeis University.

Barbara D. Savage, PhD, is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought in the Department of Africana Studies of the University of Pennsylvania.

Asha Shipman, PhD, is the director of Hindu Life and Hindu chaplain for Yale University. She is the chair of the North American Hindu Chaplains Association.


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The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab sparks practical innovation in spiritual care.